When Margaret Nettlefold planned the garden at Winterbourne, daughter Valerie revealed that her mother ‘lived with gardening books for a year or so’. Here, the influence of Gertrude Jekyll is inescapable. Winterbourne is filled with Jekyllian detail inspired by her 1899 classic Wood and Garden. Each month, we follow in Margaret’s footsteps to see how the garden compares now and then…
“A hard frost is upon us. The thermometer registered eighteen degrees last night, and though there was only one frosty night next before it, the ground is hard frozen. Till now a press of other work has stood in the way of preparing protecting stuff for tender shrubs…”Gertrude Jekyll, Wood and Garden, 1899
With barely a ground frost behind us you could be forgiven for taking a somewhat more casual attitude to plant hardiness today. There has been a general trend towards rising temperatures since the Edwardian period and in particular since the 1960s, accelerated by global warming and the industrial boom.
Climate scientists predict global temperatures will rise between at least 1-2 ˚C in the next 100 years with potentially catastrophic consequences for the planet. But will rising temperatures be good news for the long-suffering gardener, tired of coaxing exotics through unforgiving winters?
Here at Winterbourne, Mediterranean fruit trees like lemons and olives are already being left outside during winter, tucked under the cover of an overhead canopy on the Terrace. Plants such as these hate to be waterlogged so some protection from rain is essential, allowing the Garden Team to carefully regulate watering throughout the winter.
In the Walled Garden, our dahlias have also benefited from rising temperatures. They are now left in the ground and mulched over winter, where previously they might have been lifted and stored indoors. Underground the tubers will usually survive, but garden fleece will be needed come spring when fresh, young growth can be blackened by frost.
“Some large Hydrangeas in tubs are moved to a sheltered place and put close together, a mound of sand being shovelled up all round to nearly the depth of the tubs; then a wall is made of thatched hurdles, and dry fern is packed well among the heads of the plants.”Gertrude Jekyll, Wood and Garden, 1899
Many traditional methods for protecting tender plants are now nothing more than reminders of winters past. Few would go to such lengths to protect a common hydrangea. Nor do whole swathes of border require covering with scotch fir, bracken or ash. Instead, many plants previously considered tender continue to romp away deep into the year.
There is no better example than the giant Gunnera manicata. First introduced to Britain from Brazil in 1867, Gunnera would have been tenderly nursed through periods of frost and snow. By 1935 it had escaped to the wild; so at home in our climate that it is now naturalised in certain parts of the country.
Our own Gunnera was originally planted by Winterbourne’s final private owner, John Macdonald Nicolson, around the Rock Garden Pond in the 1930s. Each November their enormous leaves are cut away, turned upside down, and staked in the ground over the crown of the plant. The result is a protective winter hat that shields the Gunnera from the elements.
Inevitably some are forgotten, and many that have migrated right to the water’s edge are not easily accessible without waders. These uncovered Gunnera show no signs of flinching whatever the weather and grow just as strong the following year. Nevertheless, we continue to cover those we can to help illustrate the traditional methods of the past.
“…1886 was especially disastrous to Junipers. Snow came on early in the evening in this district, when the thermometer was barely at freezing point and there was no wind. It hung on the trees in clogging masses, with a lowering temperature that was soon below freezing.” Gertrude Jekyll, Wood and Garden, 1899
Global warming brings with it, not only rising temperatures, but wetter winters as well. Not to mention longer summers and more frequent periods of drought. Unpredictable extreme weather events will become commonplace and garden pests will proliferate without cold winters to see them off.
This changing climate makes planning a garden for the future extremely challenging. Drought will deplete our natural water supply, no longer sufficient to support the luxuriant borders and pristine lawns synonymous with the great Edwardian gardens of the past. Worse still, water-logging in winter will make it difficult to keep drought tolerant plants alive later in the year.
Our position in the Atlantic means we will always remain vulnerable to anomalous temperatures, such as those of 2010, that brought us heavy snowfall for the first time in years. Unpredictable cold snaps like this will wreak havoc in gardens planted to suit a climate that is generally getting warmer.
The gardener’s inventory then will be reduced to a handful of plants known to withstand the extremes of climate change. Gone are dreams of transformative gardens filled with delicate sun-loving exotics. Instead, only the indestructible will survive. So, a warmer climate might sound tempting. But a more unpredictable one will surely quash the same instinct for experimentation that makes the very notion attractive in the first place.